The last two placekickers for Pitt earned All-Big East honors, and finished their careers in the top four on Pitt's all-time scoring list. Dan Hutchins graduated after earning All-Big East honors as a punter last year. He also finished his career fourth on Pitt's all-time scoring list with 200 career points. Prior to Hutchins was Conor Lee, who finished his career second in career points with 263 points.
Kevin Harper broke through last season as Pitt's kickoff specialist, and has a reputation for having a strong leg. He averaged 65.9 yards a kickoff last season, including 11 touchbacks. If he handles kickoff duties again, he will benefit from the proposed NCAA rule that will move kickoffs back up to the 35 yard-line.
Harper will now look to replace Hutchins on placement kicks. Unlike Lee and Hutchins before him, Harper came to Pitt on scholarship. Both Lee and Hutchins started off as walk-ons. Harper has only attempted one field goal in his career, a 51-yard attempt against Syracuse in 2009 that was missed.
He's always had the leg, and now Harper is focusing on his accuracy. So far this spring, he has consistently hit 40-yard field goals, including a 48-yard field goal in a practice last week. There is nothing different Harper has changed to his practice routine, but he does feel an added sense of responsibility as the main field goal and extra point kicker.
"Honestly, kicking is like pitching," Harper said. "You can't go out there and do it every day. I go out and kick it three times a week, probably about 30 times every time I kick. Lifting, I stretch every day and I lift legs very hard."
On Tuesday, Harper was kicking field goals as long as 66 yards at Pitt's indoor facility during warm-ups.
"I feel that's the longest I've ever hit without a wind," Harper said of the 66-yarder. "I've been working out in the offseason, and focusing on my accuracy. I've always been a good kicker. It's just sometimes when opportunity comes, you get treated like a starter, you start kicking like a starter. I feel like that's been the biggest difference so far.
"Obviously, just getting more consistent, and being sure that 50, 55 yards, and I can put points on the board, but still being able to be a threat from long range as well."
Another thing that is helping Harper make this transition is that he is coming in with a new long snapper and a new punter. So far redshirt freshman Kevin Barthelemy has the edge on the placement snaps, and redshirt sophomore Matt Yoklic has had a good spring punting the ball. Yoklic may also take over duties as the holder, which also helps Harper.
"Yoklic was always my holder when Janocko was holding for Hutch, so hopefully I've gotten used to him," Harper said. "He's a good holder. It works out."
When they're not kicking, the specialists find other ways to not only get used to being the full-time starters at their regular positions. On Tuesday, the specialists practiced on the tackling sled. Their opportunities are limited when making tackles on the field, but it's something that could come up on a kickoff. Being that all three will play a more involved role in 2011, they're finding new ways to prepare themselves.
"It's fun, it's like being a real football player," Harper said of hitting the sled. "I wish I could do it every day after the team run period. I wish I could hit people, something like that, other than tackles on a kickoff."